Joseph S. Eubanks

Bass-baritone was well known for being an inspiration for young African-American artists

  • Joseph Eubanks
Joseph Eubanks
June 06, 2013|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Joseph S. Eubanks, a noted bass-baritone and Morgan State University music professor who performed with the first American company of "Porgy and Bess," which toured the world in the 1950s, died May 16 of renal failure at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson.

The Morgan Park resident was 88.

"Joe's voice was an outstanding instrument. It was to die for, and whenever he sang, you knew it was Joe. It was very distinctive," said Betty M. Ridgeway, a retired Morgan State University voice teacher who teaches part-time at Goucher College.

"He loved what he did and was very well-liked by his students. He was always interested in opera and promoting it," said Ms. Ridgeway. "He was such a great person."

The son of a Pullman Co. sleeping car porter and trombone player, and an artist, Joseph Samuel Eubanks was born in San Jose, Calif., and raised in Oakland, Calif., where he attended city public schools and learned to play the trumpet.

It was while a student at Roosevelt High School that Mr. Eubanks first earned recognition for his singing as a voice student. After graduating from high school in 1942, he worked as a radio repairman before enlisting in the Army in 1943.

Mr. Eubanks served in the European Theater, as a "bugle boy and the various clerk jobs that African-Americans were limited to in their service," said a daughter, Leanora Eubanks of Baltimore.

While still in the Army, Mr. Eubanks studied music at Shrivenham University in Vale of White Horse, England. After being discharged from the service, he studied music on the G.I. Bill at San Francisco State University, from which he earned a bachelor's degree in the discipline.

He began teaching music in the late 1940s at Oakland Technical High School and later at Prescott Junior High School in Oakland, Calif. He was hired as minister of music at Bethel African-American Episcopal Church in San Francisco, a position he held until 1950.

In 1951, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., with Lotte Lehmann, the renowned German soprano and Metropolitan Opera star.

Another of his influential teachers was Todd Duncan, who created the role of Porgy in the original 1935 production of George and Ira Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" at New York's Alvin Theater in 1935.

"Mr. Duncan gave him the nickname of 'The Golden Voice,'" said Ms. Eubanks.

It was through his association with Madame Lehmann that Mr. Eubanks was able to get his first big professional break when he landed the role in 1953 of Jake in the Everyman's Opera Company's production of "Porgy and Bess."

Financed by the U.S. State Department, the production was meant to show Europe that African-Americans had opportunities in the U.S.

Mr. Eubanks joined a celebrated cast that included Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway, Georgia Burke and Maya Angelou, who was then a dancer.

It was the first American company of "Porgy and Bess" to tour Europe, the Middle East, South America and Russia. By the time the tour ended in 1956, the company had performed in 26 countries.

It was also the first American production to play La Scala in Milan, and also returned American opera to Russia for the first time since the revolution.

Writers Truman Capote, Leonard Lyons of The New York Post and Ira Wolfert accompanied the troupe on its 1955 tour behind the Iron Curtain.

"There was quite a bit of controversy about the tour," Mr. Eubanks told The Evening Sun in a 1983 interview. "It was the Cold War time, McCarthyism time. The press was arguing whether or not we should go behind the Iron Curtain. Whether or not the story of Porgy and Bess would give the Russians the wrong impression of how blacks were being treated in America in the 1950s."

The troupe's tour was later chronicled by Truman Capote in his novel "The Muses Are Heard."

When the tour ended in 1956, Mr. Eubanks toured for five months with the Jubilee Singers, before he won that fall the John Hay Whitney Fellowship, which allowed him to enroll at Columbia University, where he earned a master's degree in music education.

From 1959 to 1961, he was awarded the John Brownlee Opera Scholarship, which allowed him to continue his studies at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.

In 1962, Dr. Martin Jenkins, who was then president of Morgan, hired Mr. Eubanks to teach and where he later developed and directed the Morgan Music Theater and Urban Musical Theatre.

For the next 23 years until retiring in 1985, Mr. Eubanks taught courses in voice, opera, music theory, ear training and musical theater. He was director of the Morgan Choir before it was taken over in 1970 by Dr. Nathan M. Carter Jr.

From 1973 to 1976, he directed summer theater training programs for youth on the Morgan campus and brought professional Broadway actors to work with his students as well as direct them in productions of "Me Nobody Knows, " "Billy No Name," "The Most Happy Fella," and "Bells Are Ringing."

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